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In autumn 2019  we undertook a research  and development period of White Pariahs, unearthing the hidden stories of white working class women who ‘crossed the line’, and fell in love with, or married Black men. The women risked hostility from wider society and often from those closest to them, to defy convention, cross the colour-line and marry men from the colonies. These ‘White Pariahs’ of the 50s, 60s and 70s demonstrated rebellion, defiance and courage in the face of racism and class and gender prejudice.

A new thrilling collaboration with Dervish Productions, that has brought in the room two creative forces, Hassan Mahamdallie (Writer / Dervish’s Artistic Director) and Julie McNamara (Writer / Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director).

Hassan and Julie collected testimonies from mothers, partners, fathers, husbands, wives and children – all of whom have their own stories to tell.  They invited  3 superb actors with lived experience of dual heritage families to work with the team: Fiona Whitelaw, Charlie Folorunsho and Deni Francis.

The initial exploratory work took place at Brady Arts Centre and The Albany, where the team presented the work in progress before an audience of critical friends and peers. The Q&A session, with thoughts, comments and ideas could have lasted all evening! We are grateful to everyone who joined us on the day.

 

The sharing event at the end of the R&D was followed by a discussion session, with a vibrant room filled with people keen to respond to the questions raised in the piece. The atmosphere was very vibrant and we were touched by the feedback received:

I love the way it is fluid and ambiguous in the script. I love the relevance of this piece. We need this work now! Great work in progress. Vital work .

Thought-provoking, poignant, inspiring. Love the richness of the stories against the bleakness of the wider political structures that prop up racism. Disheartening to realise we are moving into the same kind of racial politics again.

Great story-telling, would love to see more. So much history that speaks to today. It’s made me realise I need to stop being passive. Thank you.

Beautiful show – telling important stories really humanely. Interesting to talk more about white women entering BME communities.

Very powerful. Much needed. Good having both African-Caribbean and Asian mixed stories.

 


The research and responses will feed into our new production, White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels, in collaboration with Hassan Mahamdallie of Dervish Productions

Stretching back over half a century, the play will powerfully bring to life the struggles of these extraordinary individuals who defied social conventions and the open hostility of the establishment to pursue their hearts and their desires – whatever the cost.

White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels also tackles today’s hostile environment tearing apart the Windrush generation, and asks the question: Are we going back to the days when it was acceptable to be racist, for families to be split up, and for couples to be spat at in the street for the ‘crime’ of loving one another?

White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels will be further developed next year towards a national tour in autumn 2020.

 


R&D Creative Team

Researchers / Writers / Directors: Hassan Mahamdallie and Julie McNamara

Assistant Director: Simon Startin

Designer: Khadija Raza

Project Producer: Isobel Hawson

Actors / Researchers: Charlie FolorunshoDeni FrancisFiona Whitelaw

Historical Consultant: Professor Hakim Adi

Movement Consultant: Jeanefer Jean-Charles

Photography: Rehan Jamil

Filming: Mohammed Ali

BSL Interpreter: Audrey Simmons

Photo of the Creative Team involved in the R&D (from left to right): Fiona Whitelaw, Hassan Mahamdallie, Charlie Folorunsho, Isobel Hawson, Khadija Raza, Simon Startin, Julie McNamara and Deni Francis.

White Pariahs R&D creative team. Photo by Rehan Jamil

 

The Research and Development stage of the project was supported by Arts Council England and The Albany.


For further information about the project or to enquire about the tour in Autumn 2020 please send us a message using our online enquiry form. Alternatively, drop us an email, give us a call on 020 8123 9945 or send us a text on 074 3242 18253.

In summer 2019 we collaborated with poet, playwright and performer, Tanaka Mhishi on the development of his new, compelling piece entitled This is How it Happens.

The work aims to shine a light on the hidden everyday of the many different men living in the wake of sexual violence, as they navigate love, health, sex, work and fatherhood.

The creative development days at Chats Palace in late August culminated in an intimate sharing of four stories inspired by real-life experiences, charting a journey from deep in the forests of trauma out to the uplands of visibility. Tanaka presents the process below in his own words:

I had the great pleasure this summer of partnering with Vital Xposure on a short R&D of This Is How it Happens, a semi-autobiographical show exploring men’s experiences of surviving sexual violence.

I began the first drafts of This Is How it Happens in late 2014, ten months after being sexually assaulted. Since then it has been waiting, quietly and patiently, for the right team; for a community which could support me as both an artist and a survivor. So many discussions around abuse and harm are happening in the light of #MeToo, but I knew that if I were going to pursue this project I would have to do it in the safest, most nourishing way- for both me and the audience.

Vital Xposure have been there every step of the way and I found myself constantly astounded by their patience and support. Putting together this stage of the project taught me a lot about my own capabilities and limits and I don’t mind admitting that I both over- and underestimated myself in certain roles. Julie McNamara and the rest of the Vital Xposure team handled all this with aplomb, whether it was coaching me through a pre-show mental health dip or helping out when I was quivering over spreadsheets.

We finished the three day development process with a small showing. It’s difficult to believe how uplifting it was to share difficult material like this with an audience, to find them willing to process and parse it, to hear the increasingly enthusiastic engagement in our Q&A afterwards. And I marvelled at how emotionally supported the performance itself was. It set a benchmark for the next steps.

I am so privileged to be have worked with a group capable of weaving passion and compassion together so seamlessly.

And as for the next steps? Watch this space.

Tanaka Mhishi

 

 

We were thrilled to be involved in this process and it has been a privilege to work alongside Tanaka on this piece of work.

The intimate sharing event offered some touching responses from attendees which have positively fuelled us for the project’s future steps. We are sharing some of these responses below:

Very powerful, intense piece! Well done!

It provided the insight of the inner world also how the trauma was played externally.

Becoming aware of the silence of this issue, the lack of narrative in media on this.

It was important to tell the impact beyond the assaults.

 


R&D Creative Team

Writer / Performer / Lead Artist: Tanaka Mhishi

Director: Julie McNamara

Movement Consultant:  Imogen Butler-Cole

 

The Research and Development stage of the project was supported by Arts Council England and City Bridge Trust.

A little over a year ago a fire destroyed our storage unit and all its contents. Ten years of our work along with our replica of Pullen’s Giant puppet went up in flames. But like the Pheonix we’ve risen from the ashes to rebuild yet another magnificent puppet and continue the journey.

Following a creative development week in June 2018, Pullen’s Giant III hit the road for Surrey where he spent a long summer. He’s been happily ensconced at the beautiful Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village for the ‘James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius’ exhibition, where Pullen’s Giant came to life on 27th October as part of their Museums at Night programme. Audiences were thrilled and over 150 people of all ages were delighted to get up close and personal with our extraordinary giant puppet!

Watch a short video below showing Pullen animated. Many thanks to the amazing staff at Watts Gallery for this footage:

Thank you to Vital Xposure and Julie McNamara for animating Pullen’s Giant for us today as part of #MuseumsAtNight. We are open tonight until 8pm – #WattsLate – #Imaginarium.

Posted by Watts Gallery – Artists' Village on Saturday, 27 October 2018

 

The story of James Henry Pullen has stirred Vital Xposure’s hearts and minds. Pullen was a brilliantly skilled creative artist who spent close to 70 years at the Earlswood Asylum, positioned as an ‘idiot’ in an era when society did not accept people with learning disabilities. By building the replica of Pullen’s Giant, we paid homage to James Henry Pullen and attempted to give him a voice, marching across Stratford’s Olympic Park to the joyous screams for Freedom and Equality for all!

Pullen's Giant at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, June - October 2018. Photo of a man looking at the giant puppet, which is twice as tall, in the middle of the gallery room.

Pullen’s Giant at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, June – October 2018. Photo of a man looking at the giant puppet, which is twice as tall, standing proudly in the middle of the gallery room.

 

Read our Artistic Director’s, Julie McNamara, heart-warming words about Pullen:

“Of all the extraordinary objects I came across in the museum collections I investigated, I fell in love with Pullen’s Giant. He’s quite magnificent, ready for battle on behalf of Queen Victoria or taking on the asylum authorities of his day. I’d suggest he was ready for both. Never mind his splendid moustache, his uniform with Fez and sash, he is something else, with his marching arms in full swing, his flapping ears, his fully moving eyelids and a head that can swivel 360 degrees.

I felt we simply had to rebuild him. And that proved quite a feat as Pullen had designed that puppet so that he only he could operate it, or manipulate it, with a system of pullies, pedals and ropes. It took some doing to create our first replica. Puppet builder, Tony Mason was scratching his head looking at the intricately designed system inside. Pullen had created a track at the base of the neck with over a hundred ball bearings he had fashioned himself to enable the head to turn in a complete circle. The eyes had tiny tear ducts with string fed through to the lids to ensure full movement. Once we had created a replica as faithful as possible to Pullen’s original creation, we set out to cast a team of actors with learning disabilities to bring him to life. And what a joy that was to witness – an exuberant revival at Liberty Festival in Olympic Park in 2017”

Much has been written in the medical records available to us about Pullen’s mood swings, his eccentricities and his rages that interrupted the smooth running of asylum life. However, very little is documented of Pullen’s conversation, or of how he represented himself, other than a dismissive comment in the notes about his only intelligible word being ‘Muvver’ [Mother]. And yet we have the most poignant of evidence, almost eclipsed amongst the collection of carvings on display at Langdon Down Museum; Pullen’s short poem to his grandfather, once concealed in the mouth of an exquisitely carved moon (now on display as part of James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius here at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Vilage), one eye decorated with ebony and ivory, the other showing a detailed watercolour by Pullen of Earlswood asylum itself:

Oh this moon in cloudy smoky rain
See moon cry want grandfather
Shine the moon and keep cloud away
Bright the eye to see Earlswood Asylum
(Pullen, 1850. Langdon Down collection)

The poem offers us the only self-penned evidence of Pullen’s inner world and reveals quite a different person to the one represented in his medical records and archives collected from Earlswood Asylum.

Pullen was already creating intricate carvings in ivory when he entered asylum life. He was in the habit of selling his wares at the local taverns, where it seems he plied quite a trade. He might not have been a great scholar, but here was a man with huge imagination that far surpassed his tutors in the asylum.

We can only surmise what life was like inside Earlswood Asylum, with its strict protocols containing and controlling its 400 inhabitants. We do know that Pullen was allowed small freedoms in exchange for his extraordinary carvings. As an adult he was permitted to take his meals with the staff and was escorted on several occasions to a local tavern where ‘he became enamoured of a woman from the local town’ who worked as a barmaid. It is recorded that he requested permission to marry her. Any lunatics, idiots or feeble-minded people coming under the Idiocy and Mental Deficiency legislation of the time were prevented from marrying; so Pullen was of course refused permission. The staff procured an Admiral’s uniform to mollify Pullen, who was informed that Queen Victoria had intervened and requested his services at the head of her fleet, but that Admirals were not allowed to marry. He was offered the uniform if ‘he should forget his request to marry’. He wore the uniform almost daily for the remaining years of his life. There are no records of what became of the woman concerned.

This aspect of Pullen’s life seized the imaginations of our cast at Vital Xposure. We wondered together at the idea of choosing a shiny uniform instead of life outside the relative comforts of the place he had come to know as home. We wondered about how a life with a ‘wife’ might seem to someone who had run their own workshop for so long, albeit inside the walls of an asylum:

‘Maybe it was too much to get married?’ said Adam.
‘Yeah, because she’s used to running the bar. She might be expensive’, said Eden.
‘What if he had shiny buttons on his uniform and married the barmaid and then they ran off anyway?’ Eden thought.
‘What if she was just his friend and she wanted him to escape?’ Emma suggested.
‘What if he just breaks free and leads all the people outside, through the gates of the asylum?’ said Adam.

With the help of our cast we gradually built the story of Pullen’s break for freedom – which fit snugly into the Liberty Festival event in 2017 and on to the ensuing Hackney Carnival where his Giant took to the streets to celebrate. We were joined by crowds of bystanders lining Mare Street near Hackney Town Hall, where dancers from Access All Areas led a flash mob partying for all their worth ahead of a magnificent giant belching smoke and screaming for ‘Freedom!’ I rather think Pullen would have approved. It states in Pullen’s records that he thought of The Giant as his ‘guardian and protector’. Descriptions of Pullen’s activities suggest that he sought refuge inside his Giant, most notably on summer fete days when visitors were invited into the grounds to watch the lunatics make lively. He would climb inside the puppet through a door at the rear, have the nurses roll him out across the manicured lawns and roar at the gathering crowds through two horns or cornets he had fashioned, like early versions of a megaphone. Apparently he delighted in frightening the local children with the full 360 degree head swivel – it brings to mind my own terror of the most startling scene in the 1973 film, The Exorcist!.”

We would like to thank Emergency Exit Arts associate Tony Mason for building both of our beloved puppets in 2017 and 2018, Without Walls for their financial and creative support and City Bridge Trust for supporting this work.

There is more to read and watch about the first time our adored Pullen was liberated in 2017.  Simply click here.

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